The Commodores had hoped to ambush the Rebels in both teams' season opener before 29,411 fans and a Jefferson-Pilot regional television audience. Behind fine performances from quarterback Jay Cutler and receivers Erik Davis and Brandon Smith, Vandy unveiled a formidable passing attack that accounted for 298 yards in the air-- easily the highest total of the Bobby Johnson era.
The Commodores' newfound offensive spark kept Ole Miss on its heels for most of the afternoon, and the Vandy defense kept good pressure most of the day on Heisman hopeful Eli Manning.
But Manning, the master of the comeback win, guided the Rebels (1-0) to ten fourth-quarter points and a crucial conference win that puts Ole Miss atop the SEC West. The Vandy offensive attack, meanwhile, seemed to run out of gas in the fourth quarter.
Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe acknowledged his Rebels had been in a sweaty tussle. "After watching their season last year, you could tell they just got better," Cutcliffe said of Vanderbilt. "A lot of credit goes to them. They have a nice package. Bobby Johnson is a proven winner and he's done a great job with his recruits and coaching staff."
After Vanderbilt took a 21-14 lead just inside the fourth quarter, the Commodores had the ball three times with a chance to put the game away or retake the lead. But the Ole Miss defense stopped Vandy on three consecutive drives in the final stanza.
"I think depth was a factor for us today," Johnson said. "We had some tired guys out there. Unless you've ever been out there doing it... you get out there in the fourth quarter and your mind tells you do to something, but your body just won't let you do it."
Considering this was a season opener, Vandy's offense showed great promise. Jay Cutler threw for 248 yards on 16-of-23 passing, with one interception. Sophomore Erik Davis, who did not catch a pass his freshman year, hauled in six passes for a whopping 138 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown pass from Benji Walker. Ronald Hatcher and Kwane Doster both had long kick returns.
But the 2003 Commodores appear destined to struggle in the kicking game-- walk-ons manned the kickoff, placekicking and punting duties. Little-known walk-on Tolga Ertugrul was 3-for-3 on extra points, but the Rebels blocked his only field goal attempt. Vandy's special teams allowed three returns over 20 yards.
Prognosticators had projected an offensive shootout between two teams that had produced 83 points the year before-- but both offenses sputtered in the first half. Both teams moved the ball, but squandered opportunities once inside enemy territory.
Vanderbilt opened the game with two long drives that consumed almost ten minutes of the first quarter, but neither drive produced a score. Jonathan Nichols put Ole Miss up 3-0 with a 51-yard line-drive field goal just 45 seconds into the second quarter.
Cutler directed Vanderbilt on another long drive, and the Commodores appeared poised to score when Brandon Smith pulled down a pass at the Rebel 13. But Rebel linebacker L. P. Spence intercepted a poorly thrown Cutler pass in the end zone to kill the scoring chance.
After forcing an Ole Miss punt, Cutler directed a 10-play, 61-yard scoring drive that gave the Dores their first lead, 7-3, with 4:58 left in the half. On a fourth-and-1, Cutler bootlegged and passed to dragging tight end Curtis Brancheau for the score. Ertugrul tacked on the point-after in his first-ever college placekicking attempt.
Late in the first half Manning drove the Rebels deep inside Commodore territory, and hit Chris Collins with a 27-yard pass to the Vandy 2. But the Commodore 'D' stopped the Rebels on two running plays, and Manning fumbled the snap on third down. The Rebels settled for a 20-yard field goal, and the half ended with Vandy ahead, 7-6.
Early in the third quarter Jay Cutler went to the dressing room for treatment for cramps. Vandy put in backup Benji Walker who, in his only play of the game, promptly launched a perfectly thrown 50-yard scoring strike to Erik Davis. The bomb gave Vandy its biggest lead of the day at 14-6. But Manning and Ole Miss answered immediately with a 72-yard drive and game-tying two-point conversion.
A 63-yard Doster kickoff return put Vandy in business at the Ole Miss 37. The Dores drove to the 11 before stalling, and Ole Miss partially blocked a 30-yard field goal attempt. But the Commodores would later take a 21-14 lead when Cutler hit Brandon Smith on a 2-yard third-down pass early in the fourth quarter.
The Commodores held the Rebs on the next drive, but then went three-and-out themselves. Ole Miss began moving and tied the game 21-21 with 9:24 to play. Manning hit Mike Espy on an out pass, and Espy broke through Dominique Morris' tackle and scampered 23 yards into the end zone for the score.
After stopping Vandy on the next series, Cutcliffe's Rebels moved the ball from their own 9 to the Vandy 36, from which Nichols hit what turned out to be the game-winning field goal with 3:52 left.
Vandy kept the ball on the ground on its first two plays, and a third-down pass to tight end Dustin Dunning bounced off Dunning's hands. The Commodores got the ball back at their own 15 with 1:15 left; Cutler was sacked on first down out of the shotgun, and then threw three incompetions.
The much-hyped Eli Manning, a legitimate contender for the 2003 Heisman Trophy, began his senior season by completing 22-of-33 passes for 275 yards and a touchdown in leading the Rebels to the win.
"A win is a win in the SEC," said Manning. "None of them are going to come easy. We played hard and had some mistakes, but it was a win, and we'll improve from here."
The Commodores (0-1, 0-1) return home next Saturday to face the Division I-AA Chattanooga Moccasins (6 p.m. CT, no TV).